There are several times in my life when I’ve hit overwhelm.

One of the earliest was studying for tests and exams. The pressure that I felt from others, and the subsequent pressure I put on myself, has been a recurring pattern into and throughout much of my adult life.

As a child, there was a ‘homework before anything else’ routine, which I didn’t like but did anyway. I was a ‘tomboy’ and I was creative. I liked to be either outside – climbing trees, playing football, rounders, doing gymnastics, etc – or doodling and drawing inside on wet days. Being active carried on into adulthood … it was ingrained … although I did stop climbing trees! I studied to be a teacher in the heart of the Lake District, and would have much preferred being outside than inside studying.

In order to succeed at college, I had to work hard. I wasn’t a natural retainer of all the theory, although the practical side – the teaching bit – was a lot easier. I also remember wanting to do well, to achieve. Looking back, I was developing a strong work ethic, which would later result in not knowing when to stop!

Entering a profession where things were in a constant state of change and the focus was always on doing better, probably didn’t help… and I felt overwhelm on many occasions.

Finally leaving teaching through burnout (‘coaching’ hadn’t become part of the support strategies for staff at that time; if it was – I might still be in teaching!) … I trained to be a coach, having researched it, attended a coach training day as an observer, and realised this is where my future lay. I had transferable skills, I could do this!

I also transferred something else … the causes of overwhelm.

I’d brought them with me from teaching. The same approach to work I’d had as a teacher and school leader became my approach to running my business. Work … do better … work … do better … work … do better.

 

 

What have I learned?

 

You probably know, if you’re a coach, that you can’t become a coach without doing some work on yourself! It happens as a result of being coached as part of your practice sessions with fellow trainees, and through personal reflection and supervision.

As a coach I’ve come to know myself better. I’ve realised that there have been 2 key things that have driven my work ethic, which has led to overwhelm:

  • Perfectionism
  • People pleasing

Although I recognise that striving for perfection always helps us to raise our game and do our best, it’s not a healthy state to be in permanently because:

  • we typically don’t take time to stop and think … to recognise our achievements; it’s usually .. “OK, that’s done. What’s next?”
  • ‘good’ is never good enough, and you risk making yourself ill (physically, mentally or both)

It’s good to see that in the education sector there is more of an emphasis on staff wellbeing now, and I’m heartened to see overwhelm being addressed in a more recognised and accepted way (such as with Mental Health First Aid training). Nevertheless, recent experience of working with staff in schools tells me that some teachers and senior leaders are still fearful of Ofsted and the impact that a ‘negative’ judgement can have on self-esteem and workload.

A more proactive approach is better here, rather than a reactive one … and I believe this is happening more, either through coaching support in schools to increase positivity and resourcefulness, or wellbeing and mental toughness training.

Wellbeing is a popular topic on social media too, and I’m hearing about a positive shift in the private sector too. Many of my private sector clients are looking for solutions to overwhelm for their leaders and their teams.

 

People pleasing can also result in overwhelm. It’s fine to want to support and help others, but we need to know our boundaries.  

  • How often do you put your tasks and needs aside to help your colleagues?
  • And what impact does that have on your time management and work-life balance?

I recognise that this isn’t a straight forward situation … there will be several influencing factors. For example, if you’re externally motivated, you’re more likely to seek approval from others, as you look for external feedback to see how you’re doing.

If your self-esteem has taken a knock, for whatever reason, you could look for opportunities to bolster it by doing things for others, in order to gain positive feedback. (You could be doing this consciously or subconsciously.)

 

The key to recognising and managing overwhelm

The better you know yourself, including recognising different emotions, the more quickly you can recognise when overwhelm is looming and you can head it off at the pass with strategies that you know work for you.

This boils down to 3 things you can do (and these are strategies I’ve developed and used successfully myself) …

  1. Define what ‘overwhelm’ means for you … everyone will be different. For example, next time you feel overwhelmed – make a note of what caused the overwhelm*, and how you’re feeling, and how you’re acting as a result of your feelings

2. As a result of your self-knowledge, recognise when a situation is having a negative impact on you (ideally before it results in overwhelm) and take action to:

  • remove yourself from the situation,
  • change your belief about the situation to something more positive and resourceful,
  • and if this doesn’t work – develop strategies** to deal with the consequences (i.e. the situation)

3. Reflect on what happened, and increase your self-knowledge in the process. DO NOT give yourself a hard time! Be kind to yourself … what new information do you have that will help you in the future? Which strategies work well, and which can be eliminated from your toolkit of self-case strategies?

*This could be the environment, a person/people, or your own actions, such as taking on too much.

** E.g. Breathing / mindfulness exercises; going for a walk (even a short one can be effective); doing something totally different (‘pattern interrupt’) which is non-stressful.

 

 

So what’s your current ‘go to’ method for recognising and managing overwhelm?

Feel free to share them in the comments below 😊